Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Despite 'plastic' hype, Rachel should stay ready to run

Jess Jackson is practically giving away Rachel Alexandra's place in the Breeders' Cup, but I'm not buying. Not yet, anyway.

The principal owner of the best filly in the land says his girl who beat the boys in the Preakness might race colts and geldings again in the near future, but she isn't going to California to face reigning queen Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup. Jackson, whose racing concern is dubbed Stonestreet Stables, says he doesn't want Rachel Alexandra running on "plastic," his term for the synthetic surfaces that have been mandated by California for all major racetracks.

Santa Anita, which will host the Breeders' Cup for the second straight year, has a Pro-Ride brand surface for the main track. Jackson says it plays in favor of a grass horse, and he has evidence to prove it. His horse Curlin was bested last year by a European invader, Raven's Pass, in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

"I have a very strong dislike for plastic surfaces," Jackson said. "I've seen dirt horses run on plastic -- they struggle over it. Curlin did last year. I think plastic favors turf horses."

Jackson seemed dead serious about skipping the Breeders' Cup with Rachel. "I'm absolutely certain," he said. But he really needs to rethink his position.

By crushing her peers in the Kentucky Oaks and then gutting out an historic victory in the Preakness, Rachel Alexandra has positioned herself for a run not at champion 3-year-old filly, which is all but in the bag, but the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year. I could see her winning that prize without beating Zenyatta in the Ladies' Classic at Santa Anita. I cannot see the award being conferred on her if she doesn't even try.

Jackson of all people should realize that throwing a stinker on synthetics doesn't ruin a horse's resume for the award, nor his reputation, considering Curlin's honors last year that were bestowed despite his forgettable final race. The big chestnut gave his best at Santa Anita, over a surface he didn't like, at the end of a lengthy, global 4-year-old campaign, and he was respected for it. The same respect would be afforded Rachel if she sweeps undefeated for 2009 into Southern California, but can't beat Zenyatta in her own back yard, which the older mare apparently has no intention of leaving between now and then.

And that brings me around to the Breeders' Cup officials and their lame idea of running consecutive Cups at the same track for the first time in the event's quarter-century history, a move that's looking worse all the time.

I already laid as much blame on the Breeders' Cup's doorstep as I did at the houses of Zenyatta's owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, and trainer, John Shirreffs, for their decision not to challenge Zenyatta on the road this summer. With big purses and Grade 1 races to run at on the SoCal circuit of Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Santa Anita, and considering her seeming invincibility over the synthetic surfaces, why go anywhere else?

Now that decision by the Breeders' Cup could -- if Jackson is true to his word -- prompt Zenyatta's greatest (only real?) competition to skip "the biggest race of the year."

It's purely speculation, but reasonable to believe that had Jackson not watched Curlin struggle over Santa Anita's Pro-Ride last year, i.e., had that race been run elsewhere, he'd not fear running Rachel there this year. And if the Breeders' Cup were being run at any track with a traditional surface this year, Rachel would be there, presumably so would a potentially unbeaten (lifetime) Zenyatta, and Zenyatta might have been tested on the road at some time this year, to boot.

Since that horse-hockey decision is already out of the barn, it's worth returning our attention to the horse we can still catch -- Rachel, if she's in her stall, so she can be put on a plane to Santa Anita this fall.

If Jackson limits her to abusing short fields of 3-year-old fillies -- as she's likely to do this weekend in the Mother Goose S.-G1 -- then the glory of her Oaks-Preakness double fades a bit with time. Even if he and trainer Steve Asmussen send her out in the Haskell or Travers against 3-year-old males and she wins, Zenyatta remains potentially unbeaten for her whole career, with back-to-back victories in the Breeders' Cup (the latter earned while Rachel sat on the sidelines) to leave the season's last big impression on Eclipse voters. And if Rachel should lose to a colt or gelding in the Haskell or Travers, her Horse of the Year chances take what I believe would be an insurmountable setback without redemption in the Breeders' Cup.

Jackson and Asmussen can sandbag all they want right now. But their filly should remain on a course for racing at Santa Anita on Breeders' Cup day.

Rachel Alexandra has a 2-year-old win over synthetics at Keeneland, a race in which her Beyer speed figure was consistent with her dirt efforts at the same stage of her career. Maybe it isn't her favorite surface, and maybe she would go to Santa Anita, not give her best, and lose to a champion. (Or a long-shot that, almost inconceivably, beat them both.)

But Rachel wasn't unbeaten when Jackson bought her. The filly's win-streak might not extend through next year anyway if Jackson races her at 4 as he suggested Wednesday. And there's more to be lost for Rachel's reputation and public goodwill by "chickening-out" of a scrape with Zenyatta -- "plastic" home-track advantage or not -- than there is by racing and losing.

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